Discipleship and Marriage

March 4th, 2013
Image by Morgan.Cauch | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

It is to peace that God has called you. Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.
1 Corinthians 7:15, 16 (NRSV)

Words for Bible Times

Throughout this letter Paul is dealing with a contentious group of Christians at Corinth. Rather than go into the deeper questions of the gospel and thereby give them further opportunity for disagreement, he writes to them on practical issues of faith and Christian living. This passage is an excel­lent example. In light of the teachings of Jesus and of the Torah, what are the guidelines for Christian marriage?

Paul's answers to this and other questions show us the importance of right teaching in the early church. The gospel Paul had proclaimed to the Corinthians carried the promise of eternal life in the power of Christ's resurrection. This of course meant the reconsideration and even the rejection of many worldly values. The question was, Which worldly val­ues should be rejected, and which should remain in place, pending the return of Christ and the fulfillment of the com­ing reign of God?

The social and spiritual issues of marriage assumed an important place on this agenda. Whether believers should marry nonbelievers was the obvious question. Whether a woman or man who converted to the Christian faith should remain married to a husband or wife who did not convert was a more difficult question. Since Paul wrote this letter in the firm belief that the fulfillment of the reign of God was immi­nent, his advice on these issnes is deeply spiritual. At the same time, his words are realistic, reflecting the possibility that he himself was married or widowed. This would not be surprising, since it was normal for Jewish rabbis to be married.

Words for Our Time

Paul's teachings confront us at a time when sustaining a faithful Christian marriage is not easy. The very institution, especially in the Western world, is undergoing some radical changes. On one hand, people today have significant new freedoms. Young couples do not have to contend with parental control or interference to nearly the same extent previous generations did. Age, religion, and race are no longer the barriers they once were; and women are rejecting any marital role that implies subjection or inferiority as they assume greater self-confidence in society at large.

On the other hand, the changes are bringing some mixed blessings. The most conspicuous of these is the sharp rise in divorce. In many instances, this represents a hard-won free­dom, most especially for those women who, through countless generations, have been trapped in abusive relationships by social and religious discrimination. Yet abuse is not the issue in many divorces, and the frequency of remarriage is eroding the meaning of the wedding vow "until we are parted by death." People from polygamous cultures dryly observe that those of us in the West, while officially condemning polygamy, merely practice it progressively.

The climate of uncertainty generated by these changes makes it imperative that Christians of today understand and practice marriage in light of the teachings of Jesus. Marriage remains the most intimate of human relationships—more intimate than that of friends, sisters, and brothers, more intimate even than that of parents and children. For in marriage the love that binds two people together is immeasurably deep­ened through physical union. Two human bodies become one, and in so doing they surrender themselves completely to each other. In the traditional wedding litany, not often used today, the bride and the groom say to each other, "With my body, I thee worship." Marriage is that deep and that sacred.

It follows, therefore, that if our most intimate spiritual rela­tionship is with God, through Jesus Christ and in the presence of the Holy Spirit, then for a Christian to wed someone who does not have this same intimacy with God is bound to create a barrier or chasm in the marriage. This is why the Corinthians asked such questions of Paul. It was not a matter of religious observance or social custom but of common sense and candor, qualities that any couple should reasonably expect from each other in a marriage of love, dignity, and mutual freedom.

Words for My Life

Nowhere do we find the rich mysteries of the Trinity, the God who is three in one, more meaningfully expressed than in the dynamics of a Christian marriage.

Our first reaction may be to question this observation, because there appear to be contradictions in associating a marriage so closely with a trinitarian God. For example, how do married couples relate to a God who is parental? Will they not feel the same sense of intrusion they feel from interfering parents or parents-in-law? Will the intrusion not be com­pounded when they try to relate to Jesus Christ? As a young man once expressed it during marriage counseling, "I'm hav­ing a hard job making room for Jesus in our relationship. To tell you the truth, I'm jealous."

The third person of the Trinity removes these intrusions, making a Christian marriage not only the deep union of two human beings but also a deep union with God. In and through the Holy Spirit, the couple's love for each other does not detract from their relationship with God, nor does God intrude on their times of deepest intimacy. The Holy Spirit communes with them and makes their love even more exquis­ite. Their oneness finds deeper expression emotionally, spiri­tually, and physically. In a Christian marriage the Holy Spirit makes the physical union unspeakably beautiful.

In turn, the Holy Spirit opens a Christian marriage to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Discipleship becomes increasingly exacting as Christians grow in grace; and if marriage partners are not mutually committed to Christ, each will resent the demands that Jesus makes on the other. The presence of the Holy Spirit in a marriage grants the freedom to be obedient to Christ without any such resentment. 

So the words of Paul are as relevant today as they were for the Corinthians. If you are a Christian disciple, you should not consider marrying a person who does not have the same commitment to Christ. If you do, one of the relationships will be seriously impaired, the relationship with your spouse or the relationship with Christ. For the same reason, if you are already married when you make your commitment to Christ and your spouse does not join in that commitment, your mar­riage will lack spiritual intimacy. However, this does not mean that you should separate or divorce (unless your spouse leaves you or becomes abusive); because if your spouse does not sabotage your discipleship, you are well placed to be a powerful means of grace for him or her. You have the opportu­nity to witness to Christ in the most sensitive of situations—­living with someone who knows you well enough to discern God's grace in your life.

This still leaves us with what is possibly the most trouble­some teaching in the passage. That is made all the more difficult because Paul cites Jesus on the issue (Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18): If a Christian couple should find it necessary to sepa­rate or divorce, remarriage is out of the question, except to the original partner. Are we to take Jesus at his word on this? Is a Christian who has divorced and married someone else really living in adultery?

The teaching may be difficult, but it may also be the one we should take most seriously. At a time when personal fulfill­ment rather than faithful discipleship seems to be the
ulti­mate measure of a Christian marriage, Paul reverses the prior­ity. Precisely because the reign of God is imminent, our marital relationships are far less important than our faithful service to Jesus Christ. Accordingly, Christians should sepa­rate or divorce only if their discipleship is in jeopardy. If they do so for any other reason, then in light of the marriage vows they made to each other in the presence of Christ, remarriage may well be adultery.

excerpted from: Troublesome Bible Passages written by Douglas E. Wingeier and David Lowes Watson ©1994 Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

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